Photo by Kelly Sikkema on Unsplash

Kobe Bryant and the Terrible Truth of Being an Icon

We need to talk about “that thing” because it was an important part of his life — especially for the rest of us.

I would like to take a moment to talk about Kobe Bryant, from the perspective of someone who isn’t a sports fan, and didn’t know him very well, for the icon he was. I didn’t know him for much more than “basketball player” and the name that appeared in major news headlines about 15 years ago.

Gail King received death threats for addressing this complicated matter during an interview with a fellow female sports star. Reporters lost their jobs for mentioning it during the immediate aftermath of his tragic and untimely passing. The rest of us non-sports-fan outsiders stood back, dumbfounded by the incredibly sad circumstances of his passing, but also about how to feel in the wake of this tragedy. For us, knowing him — fairly or not — was mainly about the black mark on his record. That was the thing that stuck in our minds at the mention of the name “Kobe Bryant.” The thing that made us dubious of the blessed and talented life of this very hard-working young man.

From a non-sports-fan perspective, the tragedy of his death, along with his innocent young daughter and the others and children from his community, was heart-wrenching. And that was before I knew anything about Kobe Bryant the basketball player, Kobe Bryant the man.

Subsequent television programming informed me of the influence and stature he had, both among his peers and those who looked up to him. But still, as a non-sports fan and also someone who has suffered from the crimes of which he was accused, I felt … conflicted. I knew it wasn’t the time to bring up that internal struggle. That moment was about a terrible and incredibly sad accident. And yet I knew I wasn’t alone either.

In the back of my mind, I wanted to write about what this all meant for me but I couldn’t quite put my finger on the right way to articulate the idea — a visceral need that kept ringing in my insides “but we have to talk about this!”

Now that Kobe Bryant’s memorial has taken place, and there is a little bit more distance from the sad event, I feel it is necessary — even a duty — to discuss this very difficult moment, the one that made him a household name to non-sports-loving people. We should talk about it because his handling of those moments, in all their darkness, is part of the #metoo movement and an example to the world. We should talk about it because it is important, and because Kobe was so loved and was an amazing father to his four daughters.

We should talk about this because it is a part of his legacy.

So here are my thoughts on the matter.

It seems to me, after reviewing the facts, that Kobe did act honorably — both settling equitably in court with the wronged person and admitting his wrongdoing publicly and apologizing.

Here is why that’s important.

That is important for a girl like me. Because I grew up in the 80s when rape culture was an accepted part of mainstream entertainment. In other words, an accepted part of life. When John Hughes movies and the heroes in blockbuster films like Star Wars and Indiana Jones gladly exemplified gender stereotypes of men aggressing on the poorer, weaker sex, out of virility, and ingenuity, and bravery. These actions were portrayed not only without question or apology but as models to follow — those of heroes.

As an individual who has also suffered the indignity of rape, I can say with authority that it took the #metoo movement to bring these realities to light, so that we could put words to all the insidious injustices and discuss them openly, to the benefit of all. Perhaps the biggest benefit is for men to get a glimpse of the gravity of the consequences. So that they can gain some understanding about how behavior that was once considered desirable, even required, is the root of a destructive culture against women, many of whom are young girls.

These are fraught messages for young boys and girls to live with. Kobe, an exceptional competitor, and a hero, from the time he entered the NBA fresh out of high school to the moment he retired, was also a victim of this mixed message. He was, like many boys and men, a victim of the ideology that it is sexy and desirable for a man to aggress regardless of refusals.

I feel for him that he had to endure such a public ordeal because of his stature. If he hadn’t been famous, if he had been just another 23-year-old in a confusing and misunderstood dynamic, those moments would have gone unnoticed again under the dark night of obscurity as they have for many others.

But he was famous. And for that notoriety, he had to bear the weight of exposure on his lone shoulders a good decade before the #metoo movement found a broad platform. And for that sacrifice, we now have a record of the facts that can be known. We can go back and look at the circumstances and see what came out of it.

His talent and greatness spotlighted him and this confusing power struggle that our culture has suffered from for so long. In so doing he gave us a reference point from which to move forward.

Nothing is more telling than the words he used in his public apology.

He said: “First, I want to apologize directly to the young woman
involved in this incident. I want to apologize to her for my behavior that night and for the consequences she has suffered in the past year. Although this
year has been incredibly difficult for me personally, I can only
imagine the pain she has had to endure. I also want to apologize to
her parents and family members, and to my family and friends and
supporters, and to the citizens of Eagle, Colo.

“I also want to make it clear that I do not question the motives
of this young woman. No money has been paid to this woman. She has
agreed that this statement will not be used against me in the civil
case. Although I truly believe this encounter between us was
consensual, I recognize now that she did not and does not view this
incident the same way I did.
After months of reviewing discovery,
listening to her attorney, and even her testimony in person, I now
understand how she feels that she did not consent to this
encounter.

“I issue this statement today fully aware that while one part of
this case ends today, another remains. I understand that the civil
case against me will go forward. That part of this case will be
decided by and between the parties directly involved in the
incident and will no longer be a financial or emotional drain on
the citizens of the state of Colorado.”

So while others have lauded him for his incredible drive and athletic ability, for his leadership on and off the court, for his endless curiosity and pursuit of greatness, for all his effort to bring joy and wonder to the fans in the world of basketball, for the incredibly present and caring fathering he demonstrated — I want to recognize him for one more thing.

I want to thank him for acknowledging the pain he inflicted on another, even though it was confusing to him. I want to thank him for having the ability to stand up publicly and admit that he did wrong and also to grow from the experience. I want to thank him for being an example to others who might take the time to examine the feelings and experiences of the other party. I want to thank him for acting with courage for admitting he could see things another way.

Do I wish he didn’t behave that way at all? Of course I do. But we all know that humans are fallible. None of us gets away with a clean record. No one. With this dark moment in his life, he took the opportunity to grow and to show that to others. For that, I will always be thankful.

I will remember him for being the one who stood accused and acknowledged that maybe he was wrong. And I will remember him for being a “girl dad.”

Finally, I want to thank him for giving me the opportunity, through his public experience, to see how it is possible to have compassion for the perpetrator. For being a part of the complex and destructive interpersonal norms that our culture formerly normalized and that the #metoo movement has finally exposed. I can see also how confusing this must be from the other side.

This has been a strange experience for me, to say the least. I am so glad that he left as part of his legacy an example of how to own up to your mistakes, pay for them, and do your best to change and make amends.

I hope we can all learn and grow from his example.

Since we are reviewing this man’s incredible life, at the occasion of his tragic and untimely death, let us not leave out the hardest moments — the ones that others can learn from. At least within it, there are examples of the tricky, insidious problems within rape culture, of how confused parties may start to understand and move to higher ground, and how we all may gain the language and confidence to talk about it. That is the best outcome of a terrible situation I can imagine.

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Jen Salerno Yong

Jen Salerno Yong

I write, edit, research, and teach for a living. My body is in Miami, but my heart is in the far reaches of the world.